By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – It may have taken four overtimes to get there, but for the second time in the last three years, Ben Rhodes is a champion in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
As the laps wound down in regulation, it was shaping up to be a race between Grant Enfinger and Rhodes to see which of the two would walk away with the title, but with three laps to go, everything changed.
Corey Heim and Carson Hocevar, who had been involved in an incident earlier in the race, got together once more when Heim’s Toyota hooked a right coming off Turn 2, directly into the path of Hocevar’s Chevrolet, taking the two championship contenders out of the fight and pushing the race into overtime.
On the first overtime restart, Rhodes forced his way to the front ahead of Enfinger and eventually settled into second behind Zane Smith, but before the field could make it back to the start/finish line to get the white flag, a mid-pack spin in Turn 4 would bring out the yellow to send it to a second overtime.
In the scramble during the first overtime, Enfinger got some damage to his GMS Racing Chevrolet, which in turn would lead him to pit road for fresh Goodyear tires, leaving Rhodes alone near the front of the field with the championship in his grasp.
However, Rhodes’ second title wouldn’t be that easy.
With his championship contenders some 20 positions behind him, Rhodes just needed to have a clean two lap run to the finish and the trophy would be his, but on the restart, Zane Smith missed a shift in front of him, causing Rhodes to run into the back of him and spin him out.
And once again, the yellow flag was out with another overtime restart pending.
Like clockwork, a crash on the first lap of the restart caused another caution and tacked on more laps to the already lengthy championship affair.
Mercifully, the fourth overtime restart would be the last, with Rhodes lining up fourth and Enfinger having clawed his way back to 13th. Still, it was Rhodes’ race to lose.
On the final lap, Enfinger had powered his way through the chaotic restart to find himself dead even with Rhodes heading to Turn 3-4 and the finish line. Whichever of them made it back first would be the champion.
Rhodes took the advantage into Turn 3 for the final time, with Enfinger making a last ditch lunge at him. Instead of just cleaning him out and taking the win and championship for himself, Enfinger did the gentlemanly thing and elected to try and race him back to the finish straight up.
When the checkered flag waved, it was Rhodes that had the advantage, beating Enfinger back to the line to capture his second championship. After a burnout and a polish victory lap around the track, Rhodes climbed from his truck victorious, thrusting his arms in the air as champion once more.
“I can’t even believe it. Let’s go! I hate when people do that on TV, so I’m sorry. But hey, this is so awesome, man,” said Rhodes.
“To go 25 laps into overtime, you know what that feels like? Almost lose it three times? Look at the front of the truck. It’s crazy. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I thought we were going to pop a tire. I thought anything that could have gone wrong was going to go wrong.
To his credit, Rhodes took the time to tip his hat to Enfinger for the way he raced him down the stretch.
“Grant almost got me. Hats off to him. He ran a great race. I wouldn’t want to race against anybody else for the championship. He raced me clean, and I respect the hell out of him for it.”
As for Enfinger, it was a bitter pill to swallow, having clawed back from the brink of disaster only to come so close to winning the championship and nearly giving GMS Racing a storybook ending to their time in the Truck Series.
“It was just the original green-white-checkered there where we went four wide, Ben gassed it up there on the bottom, drove us in the 19 and tore up our truck and then we had to restart from 22nd there. That’s kind of what ended our run. Obviously we got close there at the end,” Enfinger explained.
“I don’t know, maybe if he didn’t have such a run down the back straightaway, but I needed to get under him to make that pass.
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a shame that the championship came down to a race like that with 15 green-white-checkereds or whatever it was right there, 30 laps extra.
“I feel like we did everything we could to win this race and just kind of got used up right there.”
Of the other two championship contenders, Corey Heim was next in line with an 18th place finish, while Carson Hocevar retired from the race following his crash late in regulation, finishing the night in 29th.
Afterwards, Hocevar summed up the incident by saying, “Yeah, I f***** up.”
Meanwhile, Heim thought it was par for the course with the previous history he has had with Hocevar as they have moved up the ranks together.
“He obviously screwed up, just wrecked me,” said Heim. “I’ve been racing Carson for a long time, racing him since I was eight or nine years old, and that’s just kind of what he does. He’ll wreck you and apologize, and then he’ll do it again the next week.
“It’s not going to be the last time he does it, and it’s certainly not the first time he’s done it. Known him for a long time, and I know a lot of guys have only known him for four years as far as his racing career, but it’s been a decade on top of that.
“It is what it is. I completely expected it. I actually drove into 1 way past my lifting point to avoid that contact because I literally saw it coming, but he went that extra yard and got us.”